City council raises mill levy to balance budget

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Columbia Falls residents will be seeing a tax increase of nearly $18 on a $200,000 home after the City Council approved a resolution last week to levy 226.97 mills, 6.55 mills more than it did a year ago.

““I do firmly believe that we need to levy our maximum amount, because it barely keeps our heads above water anyway,” city manager Susan Nicosia told council. “This funding keeps us stable.”

The decision comes on the heels of the state’s annual valuation of the city, which remained basically flat this year, despite several new building projects. The projects will add value, Nicosia noted, but those effects usually take 18 months before they are seen on the tax rolls.

In other business, Columbia Falls Police Chief Clint Peters urged the council to issue a letter to Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton denouncing the recent decision by the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council to end its oversight of police officer training in the state.

Peters, also the vice president of the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police, said that beginning Wednesday, POST will no longer oversee officer training in Montana, which it had done since its inception in 2007, which could lead to a host of problems for local police departments around the state.

Beginning today, POST will no longer be certifying police training or those doing the training, meaning departments are free to train with whomever the like, but standards could be vastly different from department to department.

“These are law enforcement agencies. I don’t expect them to just bring people in off the street as pass them off as experts in a field. It is nice when you are going into a court case that may have to do with officer-involved shootings and investigations to have another agency that has your back,” Peters said.

Another problem for police departments is that POST will no longer be certifying the training levels for officers around the state. Most departments base their pay scale on an officer’s training level, basic, intermediate or advanced. With POST no longer deciding who falls into those categories, a new system must be devised to classify officers. The problem: that system does not exist yet.

It has been suggested that the state police academy in Helena would host an 80-hour intermediate certification class, but that class does not exist yet. Considering their is already a year wait just to get into the basic class at the academy, officer’s could be waiting a long time for advancement.

““Our officers are going to come to us and say they have tried to get into the class, but were unable to by no fault of their own,” Peters said. “They are going to file grievances that they should be eligible to get their raises even though they have not reached the intermediate level.”

Mayor Don Barnhart speculated that the decision to do away with standards certification may have been a desperate plea for funding.

“This almost sounds like a political move in order to get them funded,” he said. “Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines, but them making a stink now might be their way of gathering support.”

No matter what the reasoning, POST’s decision will leave police departments around the state scrambling to come up with their own training standards.

“It really puts local police departments in a bind. Without a solution in place, without a plan, it seems kind of crazy to me for them to just say they are making these changes,” Peters said. “A lot of this stuff just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s poor planning on their part to just make this change without having a solution or even a suggestion of a solution.”

In other business, Peters also reported to the council that there a number of new stop signs going up at troublesome intersections around town, including the intersection of 6th Street and 11th Avenue.

“That has kind of been my pet peeve intersection since I have been here because it leads directly to a school and there are no stop signs on all of 7th,” Peters said. “People were picking up speed and not even slowing down for the intersections. With the crosswalks there, it is a recipe for disaster.”

Additional stop signs are being added along 13th Street near the high school, the intersection of 2nd Street and 11th Avenue and 6th Ave and 8th Street.

The council also had another discussion about dealing with invasive weeds in the city, stating their displeasure with the county’s unwillingnesss to help deal with the problem.

““If someone invites them onto their property to take care of their noxious weeds, why wouldn’t they do that,” Mayor Barnhart asked. “We pay for weed control, but they can’t go on private property. How stupid is that? That’s as bad as them saying they can’t spray for mosquitoes. We need to come up with a way to deal with this.”

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